[Note: a piece I wrote the week Kajieme Powell was killed by St. Louis police. Nearly but didn’t get picked up by a few publications, so here it is.]
A man stands glaring at you with a knife in his hand. What do you do?
It sounds like a children’s choose-your-own-adventure book, but unfortunately, it is an all too real experience that many people are faced with. It’s hard to know what to do, and the survival instinct is supposed to be first and foremost in our minds. However, we have people in our society who volunteer and are trained to protect us from men with knives and to reduce their harm to others. We’re told that we can go to those people for protection.
When the police left their patrol car in north St. Louis to engage Kajieme Powell, a man people are saying was acting erratically, they made a choice to put themselves in harm’s way, the same as every police officer does when they go to the academy or put on their badge at the top of the shift. When they left their car with guns out, they made a choice, and they had fourteen seconds to decide on a course of action that might not have killed another young Black man, so soon after the death of Michael Brown just ten miles away in Ferguson.
Police are equipped with a series of incapacitating and “Less Lethal” weaponry, and especially in a Duty-to-Retreat state like Missouri (as opposed to Stand-Your-Ground states like Ohio), the law suggests they retreat if they if they could safely avoid risks that way. The police claim “he had a knife” is a typical attempt to dehumanize the victim of police violence, which avoids the officers’ responsibility to explain why pepperspray, tasers, batons, targeting legs, or dialogue was not an option. Typical police cowardice.
Police cowardice revealed itself again when dozens of police advanced for blocks on Darrius Kennedy, who was armed with a large knife, in midtown Manhattan in 2012, and finally gunned him down rather than using any of the array of “Less Lethal” weapons they have been equipped with. And again, they revealed it when officers stood back on a subway car as a man with a knife attacked Joe Lozito who suffered a series of injuries before fighting the man off and ending his stabbing spree. Police were able to hide behind the Supreme Court’s Castle Rock v. Gonzales decision, where the public again learned police do not have a duty to protect people.
This is not to say that no officer has done something reasonable when they saw someone with a knife threatening someone else. But the hundreds of killings by police every year that have been counted by watchdog groups, since no federal government agency files comprehensive numbers on killings or use of force by municipal and state police, prove to the public time and again that we cannot trust the official story in a system swollen with impunity. When we know the stories of John Crawford, Aaron Harrison, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and hundreds of others, and then listen to an official story that lays the groundwork for impunity, our skepticism becomes a reasonable first impulse.
I posited this opinion, that along with the unarmed casualties of countless police attacks, these wild gunmen shouldn’t be shooting down people who wield knives, and the immediate response by a typical police apologist was- who the hell am I to talk about what’s it like to face a man with a knife since I’ve never done it.
The thing is, I have. In my capacity as a Copwatch organizer who has been trying to empower communities to collectively resist police racism and violence, I have learned a hard lesson that was carried with me from the neighborhoods I grew up in. Along with police violence, our communities are plagued by anti-social violence from within. And just as I have learned to work up the courage to confront violent police, I have also stood in front of men and women wielding knives at least a dozen times. And in not a single one of those instances, I am proud to say, was anyone ever cut, stabbed, shot, or killed.
Sometimes partnering with groups doing street intervention and mediation work like Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire), our work in Copwatch and simply as community members has placed us directly in front of people with knives, sometimes between them and the people they wanted to harm. Not all my methods were nonviolent- while I once struggled with a knife-wielding neo-nazi, my friend punched him in the head, where he dropped the knife. In another instance, I was able to get a drunk couple to walk down a few blocks from the people they wanted to stab, watch a Queen Latifah movie, and reflect on better ways to resolve the issue. It usually took simple dialogue, a little craziness on my part, and a bit of luck, to calm people down and pull them out of the conflict.
Groups like the Peace Institute, Anti-Violence Project, Sista II Sista, and others give trainings in deescalation and mediation work. People who do it, most of us on an unpaid basis, know that we’re entering into violent scenarios that often pose severe risks. But these types of interveners are not upheld as the heroes of society that primetime TV, parades, and disproportionate sentencing for assault on officers insist we believe police are. In fact, these programs get marginalized and defunded. Chicago’s level of street violence did not deter former Governor Rod Blagojevich from cutting Cure Violence’s state funding in 2007, or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel from closing the last of the trauma centers on the city’s South Side, which sees much of the worst violence. They played directly into a neoliberal agenda that said that government should cut social services while militarizing police forces- and indeed State Troopers have been sent to Chicago to augment the police force. And they played into a racial agenda that says that brown lives don’t matter, brown trauma isn’t real, brown pain isn’t felt.
For those of us who have felt the pain of our communities for too long, we know that the police are not a solution to our societally-created problems. We know that self-determination in our neighborhoods can spring forth popular creativity, so that we can protect our communities from the man with the knife. And maybe, just maybe, recognize his humanity as well.